French president Emmanuel Macron did not mince his words during Armistice Day commemorations at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris last week.
Speaking to leaders from around the world, including US president Donald Trump, Macron rebuked nationalism, declaring it the ‘opposite of patriotism’. He then tweeted a striking photo with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, showing the two leaders arm in arm in the rain with a simple caption: united.
The French president enraged President Trump during the speech in calling for a European Army to complement NATO, with Trump angrily tweeting after the event that Macron was attempting to build a European army to protect against the US, China and Russia. ‘But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two - How did that work out for France?’ he wrote, ‘Pay for NATO or not!’
Trump’s Twitter tirade was perhaps predictable, but so too was Macron’s suggestion, which has been made in the past by EU commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker, and was later supported by outgoing German Chancellor Merkel. Such a move, intended not as Trump assumes to get Europe out of NATO, would act as an extra layer of united European defence against a more aggressive Russia, and add to the importance of the European Union for countries with strong Eurosceptic leaders, like Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic. For all Trump’s anger, Macron’s comments about nationalism were directed within Europe and at these nations as well.
It was a strong performance from the French president on the global stage which underscored Macron’s immense popularity around the world as a bright, young alternative leader of Europe as the ostensible current leader Angela Merkel prepares to depart the German chancellorship.
But on the domestic front, which is fundamental to Emmanuel Macron’s place on the world stage, the difference is striking.
In the most recent reputable opinion polls, Macron’s approval rating was sitting at 27 per cent. Add to this a disapproval rating of 69 per cent, and the net figure (42 per cent disapproval) does not bode well for the president.
Macron’s presidency has been one of reform - which has been vehemently protested at every stage.
First, the French government overhauled the labour code, making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, and streamlining the 3000-page ‘red book’ containing everything surrounding French employment law. While the legislation was supported by the conservative ‘Les Republicains’ party, it was described by the left-wing socialist party as undercutting employee protections and forgetting workers.
Then Macron’s government pushed through reforms to the SNCF - the French national rail lines - in their most significant changes since being nationalised in the 1930s. The law turned SNCF into a joint-stock company, giving its management greater corporate responsibility. It also put in place plans to end generous benefits - which included lifetime employment - and pensions for future employees. In the SNCF’s case, public support for the strikes organised by rail unions waned, giving the government the required political capital to maneuver the bill through the house.
Interestingly, it seems to be a more insignificant change which has sparked some of the largest protests against Macron’s economic policies. In a bid to encourage motorists to use more environmentally friendly vehicles, the French government introduced tax hikes on fuel, setting off a wave of protests on roads around France. The fuel taxes follow increased taxes on tobacco and an increase to a social welfare levy.
Dubbed the ‘Gilets Jaunes’, or the yellow vests, between 300,000 and 500,000 protesters blocked roads around France this week, chanting for Macron to resign and preventing cars from using the roads. The protesters held signs calling Macron a dictator and describing him as a president for the rich.
All of the policies listed were present in Macron’s election program, but the deep unpopularity of the reforms highlights one of the main reasons why he was voted in: that he was not far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. And while protests are commonplace in France, Macron will walk a careful line of listening to protesters while pushing ahead with his reforms in some form. A major undoing of both his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, was their inability to push through unpopular reforms and make a dent on France’s notoriously high unemployment. If Macron is able to bring unemployment down, it will be a hard-fought and significant achievement.
These protests are significant not because they will bring down the Macron government less than halfway through its five-year term but because they underscore a legitimate problem for Macron’s foreign policy, and for European leadership.
As Europe prepares for long-term chancellor Angela Merkel to step down at the next election and the world grapples with President Trump’s transactional style of foreign policy and a wave of right-wing nationalism, Macron continually positions himself as a unifying leader in Europe. Key to his success in this endeavour is that his policy gambles at home pay off.
Joe Bourke is a research assistant at the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs and a Sydney projects officer for Young Australians in International Affairs